Winter bulbs may seem like a contradiction at first glance but in fact winter is the flowering time for the large and impressive category of bulbs hailing from South Africa. Before you think, well, what could those be and where the heck would I find them, it's worth noting that freesias, ixias and gladiolas all hail from this region. The first to bloom from this group are usually the lachenalias. My L. viridiflora, with its otherworldly milky blue flowers, is in bloom now. Flower colors range from nearly pure white to vivid tricolor varieties. Cape cowslips as they're known are some of the most vigorous bulbs around. That description would apply to babianas as well, curiously known as baboon flowers. They produce sprays of lavender to purple to pink cup shaped flowers in mid to late winter. Around that time ixias (corn lilies) begin to flower, showcasing vertical sprays of pink flowers. Also early to bloom are freesias and sparaxis (Harlequin flower). Everyone is familiar with fragrant freesias but sparaxis are one of my favorite bulbs. Very colorful, with differently colored centers and/or inner margins, these cheerful bulbs begin flowering in my garden in early March.
Everyone knows gladiolas but did you know that the bulbs you buy in the store are hybrids of original S. African species? There are a host of species glads that have sprays of smaller flowers that make up in color and interesting patterns that they lack in size. One of the more charming ones is G. alatus, showcasing apricot colored flowers with striking chartreuse markings.
Lastly, look for Moraeas this time of year. This hardy bulb flowers in late winter/early spring. Most striking of all is the aptly named Peacock moraea (M. villosa), which has to be both one of the most striking flowers in nature but also the owner of the most vivid turquoise blue 'eyes' ever witnessed (thus its common name). Check out an article I did for the SF Chronicle earlier this year on South African Bulbs.
Look for these bulbs or live plants at your local nursery. For those in North Oakland and Berkeley, Grand Lake Ace nursery on Grand Ave has an excellent selection of these bulbs in 4" pots.